Daryl Morey

Daryl Morey Talks Covington, Tax, Buyout Market, Playoffs

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey faced criticism in some circles this week for his decision to move center Clint Capela in a deal for Robert Covington, creating an extra-small lineup that has head coach Mike D’Antoni playing Covington and P.J. Tucker as his de facto “bigs.” While there’s skepticism that Houston can seriously contend for a title playing that form of small-ball, the experiment is off to a good start, with a road win over the Lakers in Covington’s first game on Thursday.

Speaking to Mark Medina of USA Today about the Rockets’ new-look roster and the club’s approach to the deadline, Morey said that Covington is a player Houston had been “trying to get for a long time.” He also shared a few more interesting insights on that deal and expectations for the Rockets as the postseason nears.

The interview is worth checking out in full, but here are some of the highlights from Morey:

On why the Rockets made a major trade after Morey previously suggested they likely wouldn’t:

“It was really just Covington becoming available. We’ve been working on that for a long time. We thought he’d be a perfect piece to play the style we thought would be best for two superstars on our roster. Clint is an extremely good player and one we did not want to give up. But it was required in this deal. Without the perfect piece for how we wanted to play becoming available, Clint would still be here. That was really the only way to get this done.”

On whether Rockets ownership prioritized getting out of the luxury tax:

“No. Actually, I’m being totally up front. I was getting strong encouragement to go the other way.

“… Ownership incorrectly gets beat up. We operate like every other team in the NBA. When you’re a contender, you’re right around the luxury tax line. That’s how we’ve always operated. That’s how we’ve operated since I’ve been here since 2006. We still have a huge payroll in the league. I know people like to focus on it. But that’s a weird thing. Focus on the team on the floor. If people don’t like that we don’t have a big man or don’t like how we play, that’s fine. But judge us for how we are.”

On how the Rockets will approach the buyout market:

“Honestly, we’re just going for best player. We like how we’re playing. People are saying, ‘You have to get a big this or a big that.’ But we’re going for the best player. If that’s a big, we’ll go grab it and figure out if he can fit into our style. If it’s a wing, we’ll do that. We feel very comfortable with our roster. We like where we’re at. We think this is a team that can win the championship. But if we can add a good player in the buyout market, we’ll do it. But we’re not counting on the buyout market.”

On expectations for the Rockets in this year’s playoffs:

“The Lakers deserve to be called the favorites (to come out of the West). They play better than anyone to this point. They’re playing unbelievable basketball at both ends. So they’re the favorite. We’re in a group with the Clippers, Utah and Denver and the other top contenders in the West to fight with them. But we feel very comfortable we can beat the Lakers.”

Rockets Not Motivated By Luxury Tax Concerns?

FEBRUARY 4: Contradicting his original report, Young tweets that he’s been told that Fertitta has given Morey the go-ahead to make deadline deals without financial restrictions. The Rockets’ owner isn’t satisfied with the team’s place in the standings so far and wants to upgrade the roster, Young adds.

While that may be true, Houston is close enough to the tax line that it still wouldn’t be a surprise if the club ducks below it in the coming days.

FEBRUARY 3: The Rockets are looking to shave enough salary off their payroll to avoid the luxury tax, Jabari Young of CNBC.com reports.

The Rockets have been actively engaged in trade talks, most notably dangling center Clint Capela, who is in the early stages of a five-year, $90MM contract. Moving Nene, who has a non-guaranteed $10MM salary for next season, would also contribute greatly toward that goal. The Rockets have approximately $139.9MM in contractual obligations and owner Tilman Fertitta wants to get below the $132MM tax line.

Some league executives believes Rockets GM Daryl Morey is being pressured by Fertitta to decrease salary while simultaneously trying to keep the franchise in championship contention, according to Young.

Fertitta has denied in the past that he’s motivated by luxury tax concerns but the team’s moves the past two years have the look of a franchise trying to dodge the tax, Dan Feldman of NBC Sports notes. The way Houston’s 2018 offseason played out, and the curious moves it make prior to last year’s trade deadline, had the appearance of a team with tax concerns, Feldman continues.

Players like Gerald GreenThabo Sefolosha and Tyson Chandler making the veteran’s minimum could be traded and replaced by players making partial-season minimums, Feldman notes. By tossing in assets to move contracts, the Rockets will hinder their chances of upgrading the team, Feldman adds.

Knicks Notes: Morris, Dolan, Front Office, Ntilikina

At least one team that has recently been in touch with the Knicks came away with the impression that Marcus Morris and New York have “strong mutual interest” in working out a new contract in the summer, sources tell Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve heard the Knicks might prefer to keep Morris through the deadline and retain him long-term. As Begley notes, the team likes the influence the 30-year-old has had on the younger Knicks players and believe he’s the sort of veteran who can handle the scrutiny that comes with playing in New York.

Begley also rightly points out that if Morris strongly reciprocates the Knicks’ interest, it might not make sense for potential suitors to pursue a trade for him. New York’s asking price would likely be pretty high, and if Morris’ preference is to be a Knick, he could simply return to his old team in free agency at season’s end. A potential trade partner would presumably be more inclined to offer New York a first-round pick if that team believes it has decent odds to re-sign the veteran forward.

Here’s more on the Knicks:

  • For as much as the Knicks like Morris, they weren’t fans of the comments he made this week about Jae Crowder, when he referred to the Grizzlies forward as having “female tendencies” on the court. As Marc Berman of The New York Post relays, the Knicks said in a statement that Morris’ comments were “offensive and unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated.” Morris apologized again for his remarks, per Peter Botte of The New York Post.
  • Within an article about Knicks owner James Dolan, Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News briefly addressed the team’s front office situation, noting that president Steve Mills and Scott Perry each have mutual options for 2020/21, meaning both the executive and the team would have to opt in. When listing possible front office candidates for the Knicks, Bondy mentioned in passing that he believes Rockets GM Daryl Morey will become a free agent due to the China controversy.
  • ESPN analyst Paul Pierce suggested during a Thursday appearance on The Jump that a change in ownership would help turn things around in New York. “I truly believe once they get new ownership you’ll see change,” Pierce said, per Greg Joyce of The New York Post. “You saw it with the Clippers. Look what happened with the Clippers. Now they’re a perennial playoff team, they got better ownership and they’re a championship-contending team now.”
  • After missing Wednesday’s game due to a groin injury, Frank Ntilikina will be listed as probable for Saturday’s game vs. Indiana, head coach Mike Miller said today (Twitter link via Mike Vornukov of The Athletic). Point guard Elfrid Payton will be suspended for that game, opening the door for a larger role for Ntilikina.
  • In case you missed it, RJ Barrett was named to the World Team’s Rising Stars roster earlier today.

NBA Revises Cap, Tax Projections For 2020/21

3:15pm: The NBA’s new projection is a $115MM salary cap and $139MM tax line, according to Wojnarowski (Twitter links). That’s not as significant a drop from the previous projection as some front offices feared, so it shouldn’t have a noticeable impact on teams’ plans at the deadline.

3:07pm: The NBA has informed teams that new projections for 2020/21’s salary cap and luxury tax threshold are on the way, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN. Those new numbers haven’t been revealed yet, but teams are expected to receive that info shortly in order to ensure they’re as informed as possible as they consider deadline trades.

When the NBA last updated its projection in September, it called for a $116MM cap and a $141MM tax line in 2020/21. Each of those numbers would represent a substantial jump up from the figures for 2019/20, which are $109.14MM (cap) and $132.627MM (tax).

However, those estimates were issued before Rockets general manager Daryl Morey published a tweet supporting protestors in Hong Kong. That tweet instigated a controversy between the NBA and China that cost the league sponsors and television partners. The ordeal is believed to have cost the NBA approximately $150-200MM, league sources told ESPN.

Although the cap is still expected to increase beyond this year’s figure, front office executives are preparing for a more modest jump, according to Wojnarowski and Marks, who hear that some teams believe the new projection could dip as far as $113MM. Tim MacMahon of ESPN tweets that some team executives have referred to the expected drop as the “Daryl Deduction.”

A smaller cap increase than expected may not have a massive impact in free agency, since most teams are expected to be over the cap anyway. Still, every dollar counts when it comes to creating cap flexibility and avoiding the tax. Wojnarowski and Marks point to the Celtics, Nets, Warriors, Rockets, and Sixers as teams that could be taxpayers in 2020/21 and would be on the hook for a larger bill if the tax threshold is a few million dollars lower than anticipated.

Players who have signed maximum-salary contract extensions that take effect for the 2020/21 season will also take note of the league’s new cap estimates, since it will have an impact on their projected earnings.

Sixers guard Ben Simmons and Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, for instance, signed maximum-salary extensions that will start at 25% of the cap next season, assuming neither player earns an All-NBA spot in 2019/20. When they signed those deals in July, the league was projecting a $117MM cap, which would have made them worth $169.65MM over five years. A $113MM cap would reduce their projected value to $163.85MM apiece.

Several other figures – including the rookie scale, mid-level exceptions, minimum salaries, and cash available in trades – are also linked to the percentage the salary cap increases from year to year and would be affected by an adjusted 2020/21 projection.

Rockets Being Aggressive On Trade Market

It’s never surprising that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is looking to make a deal, especially around the trade deadline, and Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle reports that a shortage of assets hasn’t prevented Morey has being as active as ever.

A source tells Feigen that the Rockets are hoping to trade their 2020 first-round pick for a player who can help right away. They haven’t targeted a specific position, but Feigen assumes point guard is off the table with Russell Westbrook and James Harden handling the playmaking duties.

Morey doesn’t seem to mind parting with a first-rounder, even though the team will be short on them in upcoming years. Houston sent first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 to the Thunder in the Westbrook deal, along with the option to switch picks in 2021 and 2025.

Feigen speculates that the team may be more interested in adding someone in the frontcourt rather than at the wing, where Rivers, Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore are all available and Thabo Sefolosha has been seeing an increase in playing time.

In addition to the first-rounder, Houston has Nene‘s contract, along with trade exceptions valued from $1.5MM to $3.6MM, as assets to try to get a deal done. Feigen notes that beyond the Rockets’ core, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green both have restrictions that enable them to veto any trade, while Chris Clemons can’t be moved because he just signed a three-year contract in late December.

Feigen adds that the Rockets also have a history of being aggressive on the buyout market and may have hopes of landing Andre Iguodala if they can’t find a deal they like.

Chris Paul Was “Shocked” By Trade To Thunder

Chris Paul tells Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated that he was “shocked” at the trade that sent him to Oklahoma City this summer and insists Rockets general manager Daryl Morey promised him it wouldn’t happen.

After being knocked out of the playoffs by the Warriors for a second straight year, Houston jumped at the chance to shake up its roster by acquiring Russell Westbrook from the Thunder. That meant shipping out Paul and a parcel of draft picks.

“My initial reaction?” Paul said. “I was shocked. Truth be told, I just talked to Daryl a couple days before the trade and he said he wasn’t going to trade me (to Oklahoma City). That’s funny because that is going to be the alert that pops up on everybody’s phone because nobody knows that. But what the hell, I just said it.”

Morey refused to respond to Paul’s comment, but sources close to the team told Spears that the GM informed Paul there was a “slim chance” he might be included in a Westbrook deal. Morey was hoping to make it a three-team trade and send Paul to a playoff contender such as the Heat, but no one else was willing to get involved. He also thanked Paul for his contributions to the franchise.

“Chris got us as close to winning a title as we’ve been since Hakeem Olajuwon,” Morey said. “He was a great Rocket. I wish him the best going forward. I am a big fan of Chris. I have nothing but love for him.”

Paul said his time in Houston marked two of the best seasons of his career. However, they ended in an apparent falling out with James Harden during last season’s playoffs that had many believing a breakup was coming. Paul admits he and Harden “haven’t really talked” since the trade was completed.

“It’s life. It happens,” Paul said. “It is what it is. But I wish him nothing but the best.”

The next question for Paul is how long he will be with the Thunder, who are off to an 8-11 start and appear ready to rebuild after trading Westbrook and Paul George. Although the market will open up December 15 when most of the free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded, Paul’s contract remains a major impediment. He makes $38.5MM this season at age 34 and is owed roughly $85.5MM over the following two seasons. Spears notes that many teams are already trying to save cap space for the next loaded free agent class in 2021.

“I try to control what I can control,” Paul said. “And for me, that is preparing to play every night. Doing my workout. Doing my training. Hooping.”

Latest On NBA/China Controversy

The storyline that dominated NBA headlines during the preseason has fallen off the radar to some extent with the regular season underway, but that doesn’t mean league and team executives aren’t still concerned about the NBA’s relationship with China.

League sources tell Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com that NBA leadership is monitoring the trade negotiations between the United States and China in the hopes that a resolution on that front will help thaw the league’s relationships in its “most profitable foreign market.” Those relationships have been frosty since Rockets general manager Daryl Morey published a tweet supporting pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.

Tencent – the NBA’s streaming partner in China – has resumed broadcasting games, but still isn’t showing Rockets contests, as Arnovitz details. Meanwhile, China’s state-run network CCTV hasn’t shown any regular season games at all. While the NBA has remained in contact with CCTV officials, there’s no sense of when the impasse may be resolved.

Arnovitz’s full story at ESPN.com provides an exhaustive, in-depth look at where things stand between the NBA and China, and is worth reading in full. Here are a few more highlights from the report:

  • Terminated sponsorships with Chinese companies have affected teams around the NBA, not just the league itself, according to Arnovitz, who hears that one club immediately reduced its 2019/20 projections for revenue derived from Chinese sponsorships to zero. The Rockets have been hit particularly hard, having lost $7MM+ in cancelled sponsorship agreements for this season, and $20MM overall once multiyear deals are taken into account.
  • Beyond the financial ramifications, some NBA front offices have been “shaken by the turmoil” caused by the drama with China, league sources tell ESPN. As Arnovitz explains, the league has enjoyed increasing revenues and positive media coverage for years, but the China controversy has tested the idea that any issue can be managed.
  • Many team executives would like the league to establish guidelines for dealing with potentially sensitive political topics, since teams and players will likely have to answer those questions in the future — especially on trips to China and India, among other countries. League sources have acknowledged the need for those guidelines, Arnovitz says.
  • Rival executives don’t expect this controversy will impact Morey’s ability to do his job. However, sources close to the Rockets view the marriage of Morey and team owner Tilman Fertitta as a “tenuous fit,” according to Arnovitz. Fertitta has been more averse to paying the tax than his predecessor Leslie Alexander was, and quickly denounced Morey’s tweet last month, announcing that the GM’s views didn’t reflect that of the organization.

Rockets Notes: Morey, Offseason, D’Antoni

The Rockets have certainly not been bereft of drama, on or off the hardwood. After subtracting Chris Paul and adding Russell Westbrook this summer to be James Harden‘s new backcourt mate, Houston has struggled. The club is currently 4-3, the eighth seed in a loaded Western Conference.

As Houston prepares for a Wednesday home bout against a Warriors team missing as many as five starters, let’s take a look at more Rockets notes:

  • Following a lopsided 129-100 defeat to the 5-1 Heat, the job security of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has been questioned, according to Sean Deveney of Heavy.com. “This is gonna stick with the FO (front office) for a while,” one coach texted Deveney during Sunday’s blowout. D’Antoni’s current contract with the Rockets expires at the end of the season.
  • Despite the Rockets’ rocky 4-3 start to the regular season, including that forgettable showing on Sunday, GM Daryl Morey considers the ceiling for the new-look Rockets to be extremely high, according to a conversation with The Athletic Houston’s Kelly Iko. “I really think we could be the best offense ever put on the floor,” Morey said. “Now we’ll see if we can back that up, but our transition has been really good. Obviously, last year, we were one of the best halfcourt teams ever. There have been times where we’ve combined those two things and looked really good. Sometimes our transition has fallen off, sometimes our half-court (offense). But if we pull it together like I think we can, I think we’ll be the best offense in the league and a top-10 defense. That’ll be a formula to win the title.”
  • In the same interview, Morey acknowledges a desire to improve the team’s defense. The team is currently ranked 28th in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com“We’re going to be a good defensive team. Obviously there’s been, you know, some things that don’t look good so far. But I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be one of the top-10 defensive teams by the end of the year… To be a championship-caliber team, you gotta be a top-10 defense.”
  • Notably, Morey’s new Q&A with Iko doesn’t touch on the controversy stemming from the GM’s summer tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests against mainland China. That message prompted China to suspend all business ties with the Rockets. Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports thinks Morey needs to address what became the big story of the NBA preseason, as he notes in a recent opinion column.

Tilman Fertitta Never Considered Discipline For Daryl Morey

In the latest news on the NBA’s ongoing controversy with China, Sopan Deb of The New York Times writes that Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, despite publicly distancing himself and his franchise from the now-famous tweet by general manager Daryl Morey, never considered firing or even punishing Morey.

Interestingly, however, there was no explanation as to why Fertitta began liking posts on Instagram supportive of Morey’s firing then, but Fertitta did explain why he was – and still is – not okay with Morey’s tweet.

In a written explanation, Fertitta said that he needed to initially distance the Rockets from Morey because he “felt it was important to make the distinction between Daryl speaking as a private citizen and Daryl as a representative of the Houston Rockets… (and the Rockets) have never commented on another country’s foreign policy.”

Deb notes, however, that Fertitta himself has been willing to speak on politics before without distancing the Rockets from his views. Accordingly, Fertitta was asked whether he’d be comfortable with his employees publicly voicing their political views in the future. He declined to comment.

Chinese Television Lashes Out At Silver, Morey

China has vowed “retribution” against NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for his role in last week’s standoff between the nation and the league, writes Catherine Wong of The South China Morning Post (hat tip to NBC Sports).

In a commentary that aired today, state-run CCTV claims Silver “crossed the bottom line” with his continued support of Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who set off the dispute with an Oct. 4 tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Silver said this week that Chinese officials had demanded that Morey be fired, but the commissioner refused to take any disciplinary action, citing the right to free speech. However, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, disputed that claim yesterday.

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” CCTV said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

The broadcast also accused Silver of having “double standards” and charged that he “defamed” China in front of an international audience.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” CCTV claimed. The network also accused Morey of having “problems in his character” and promised he “will receive retribution sooner or later.”